A group of local activists is sounding the alarm in the community about possible exposure to toxic chemicals in Hartford elementary schools.
Members of BLM 860 are hoping to raise awareness among staff and former students who may have been exposed to potentially harmful Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) in John C. Clark Elementary and Annie Fisher Montessori Magnet School. They are concentrating on people who attended or worked at Clark Elementary from the mid-1980s until it was closed down in 2016, and who attended or worked at Annie Fisher between 1989 and 2010 when the school underwent remediation.
Those who might fit within either of these categories are being asked to take a survey, and organizers are urging them to inform their doctor that they may have been exposed to PCBs.
“We need to first get everyone to the doctors. We want everyone to get screenings,” explains Ivelisse Correa-Ojeda, leader of BLM 860. She says that several alumni of the schools have been diagnosed with cancers in recent years, including the father of her children. Some, she says, have died. “We need to let everyone know, please tell your PCP, this is part of your medical history now. Do all the screenings because it’s best to be informed and hopefully nothing happens, you’re not geared to develop something, but if you are, we want you to have a fighting chance.”
Correa-Ojeda says they’re also hoping to raise funds to help those already affected. She says several people are now struggling to pay expensive medical bills. Ultimately, she hopes pressure might force those responsible for contaminating the schools to foot the bill.
PCBs were commonly used in building materials, including insulation, adhesives, paint, flooring, and caulking. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, PCBs are known to cause a variety of health problems, including cancers, neurological disorders, and effects on the immune and endocrine systems. Additionally, the chemicals do not readily break up when they enter the environment and can persist in water, air, and soil.
PCBs have been an issue for Hartford schools in the past. Clark Elementary was closed down after PCBs were found to be at levels unsuitable for schoolchildren. The City of Hartford sued Monsanto over the chemical exposure at Clark in 2015, asking the company to pay for remediation in the school. A decision has not yet been handed down in the case.
A 2019 investigation by NBC Connecticut found that almost a dozen local schools might contain harmful levels of the chemicals but had never been tested.
Correa-Ojeda says she is disappointed that no one reached out directly to staff and students of the schools to inform them of the potential health hazards, and to urge them to get regular cancer screenings. She says this could have potentially saved lives.
“I’m very disappointed that the city was aware of this, and they spoke at length about the medical risks when it came to suing Monsanto, but they did not bring that same energy on letting everyone who is exposed to these same chemicals and not inform them,” says Correa-Ojeda.
CII reached out to representatives with the City of Hartford to ask whether they had made an effort to reach out to people who might have been affected by PCB exposure in the schools. A representative from the city said that there was communication but that it would have come from Hartford Public Schools and directed us to speak with them.
Some communication on PCB exposure from HPS is available online, stemming from the closure of Clark Elementary. In those communications, the HPS superintendent assured parents and staff that “the federal Environmental Protection Agency set its recommended PCB levels extremely low precisely to eliminate any possibility that they might cause a health risk.” The statement also includes directions to contact the Connecticut Department of Public Health if there are any questions about health risks, but does not go as far as to suggest parents, faculty, and staff might want to submit to screenings.
CII has reached out to HPS to further clarify what instructions were given in this regard. Their response is as follows:
Hartford Public Schools is committed to the safety of our students, teachers, and staff. In reference to the recent coverage of PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyls), we are guided by the appropriate state and federal agencies to establish and maintain a compliant approach for the management of potential PCB materials in our buildings.
Schools buildings originally constructed between 1950-1979 that were fully renovated (as new) would have included the removal of existing building materials potentially containing PCBs and air quality testing was conducted to ensure that our students would be entering a safe environment. This includes the schools located at 757 New Britain Avenue in Hartford. PCBs were outlawed in 1979, so is therefore not a concern for school buildings constructed or fully renovated after that date.
In 2015, Hartford Public Schools communicated to all families that students and staff at Clark Elementary School would be relocated while testing was conducted. In that communication and others, the District provided resources as well as contact information for personnel at the Connecticut Department of Public Health so families could ask questions about PCBs. Furthermore, the District also hosted a family meeting so concerned members of the community could meet with the former superintendent and her staff. Ongoing updates (weekly) were provided to the community throughout the process and as follow ups to in person meetings.Hartford Public Schools Spokesperson
Additional communications from HPS show that the school district had acknowledged potential use of PCBs in buildings built before the chemicals were banned in the 70s. They listed several schools, including Annie Fisher, which had undergone renovations to remove the materials, as well as others scheduled for renovation. The letter stated that approximately 800 schools had been built in the state during the period when PCBs were in common use.
BLM 860 will be holding a follow-up meeting Tuesday of next week. For more information, you can email them at [email protected].